A few months back, I had drinks with an old friend of mine who works in the athletic department of a Big Five conference university. I brought up a fairly high-profile pseudo-scandal at the school, one that, as far as I could tell, had been rather thoroughly and definitively reported out, and confirmed as accepted fact. He laughed at me. "The media always thinks it knows what's going on," he snorted. "We on the inside mostly just laugh at it." He then (off the record, alas) gave an alternative explanation for the story that may be true or may not be true, but certainly made sense, not just in logic but also in how it explained why the story hadn't come to light in a public sense. He might have been feeding me a line of bull. He might have been giving me the real story. I honestly don't know. We always think we know so much more than we do.
I can't think of any better example of this disconnect in the world of sports journalism than the Baseball Hall of Fame vote. That we allow writers to vote on this highest of baseball honors is, for all the attempts to reform it, an anachronism. It's a callback to a time when there were a limited number of men (and it was almost always men) who saw players more than anyone else did and therefore were the only people who had the most important qualifications: First-hand observation, and at least the pretense of impartiality. You couldn't let just players and managers -- the only other people who saw all of these players play -- choose who got in, because they would let everybody in, or at least just their close friends. Writers were the sole other option. It had to be them. They were there all the time. Who else would you ask?
But the world has a funny way of evolving. The two main qualifications -- proximity, and impartiality -- have been obliterated by technology and by, inevitably, human nature. Not only can everyone see these players every day now, but they have access to literally millions of bits of information that were inaccessible to voters of the past. (Some people still choose to ignore these bits of information, and are even inexplicably proud of it. I do not want to be in a crashed plane with these people. I don't need some fancy new-fangled sign to tell me how to exit. I'll get out of here on my own, thank you very much.) Proximity is irrelevant in this day and age, particularly one when players are more siphoned off from media than ever … and have more outlets to bypass the press all together.
To me, though, the primary reason writers shouldn't vote on the Hall of Fame -- other than actual, you know, ethics, which is the reason the Washington Post and New York Times don't allow their writers to vote on the Hall or end-of-season at all -- is that the game they are talking about is not the one that's actually happening on the field. They are taking moral and personal stands that have nothing to do with baseball at all.
Look at the results today. Supposed PED users Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who also happen to be the best hitter and pitcher of the last 30 years, can't even get 40 percent of the vote. Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell are left out simply because … well, because they used to stand next to people who confessed to using PEDs, or happen to be people who were unliked. (Though Piazza does seem primed to get in next year.)
Do people inside baseball feel that these players are really stains on the game? Ask Jhonny Peralta, who signed a massive deal with the Cardinals the year after serving a PED suspension. Ask Nelson Cruz, who just signed a big four-year deal with Seattle, or Melky Cabrera, who got $42 million and three years from the White Sox. Yes, baseball eventually got strict about PED use, and I'm sure some GMs think twice before signing a guy with PED history, if for no other reason than the risk of his punishment is a factor to weigh in the investment. But this moral judgment that writers are imposing on players they believe used PEDs … doesn't it seem like it is the writers' stance alone? If their votes have nothing to do with how baseball works, who are they for? They are for themselves. This is not a mortal sin, obviously; it is simply human nature. We are all judgmental about things that offend us, whether it's fair or not. But it is the exact opposite of impartial.
Also: Advanced statistics. It's pretty amazing that sabermetrics and advanced stats are still considered a topic of debate -- and by "debate," I mean, "I'm choosing to ignore them rather than debate you" -- by some voters set in their ways, but they clearly are. But this isn't just a generational divide: After all, older people have been yelling at younger people, who have been yelling back, since people regularly started living past 35. The divide that matters is that baseball has clearly, obviously and overwhelmingly decided that sabermetrics and advanced metrics are critical to continued success and growth of the game. Few front offices (if any) ignore them. Few managers ignore them. Even most players at least have come to understand the basic principles. This does not mean they tell us everything. But it means they tell us something vital.
But if you look at Jay Jaffe's JAWS scores -- the definitive statistical measure of how a player stands up against his historical peers as a Hall of Famer -- both Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina easily eclipse the standard for induction. John Smoltz does not. Neither Mussina nor Schilling could even hit 40 percent. Smoltz hit 82.9. That's not to say Smoltz isn't a Hall of Famer; it's just that this sort of disparity speaks, again, to votes based on emotion rather than proximity or impartiality. It speaks more to dogma.
There are reformers in the midst, like Jaffe, and new BBWAA vice president Derrick Goold, who has argued for a binary yes-no ballot rather than these weird bylaws of 10-player limits, or 12 years on the ballot rather than 10. But they are hamstrung by the Hall itself, which made its stance on reform clear when it reduced the 15-year limit to 10, in a move clearly meant to target the PED crew, to get them off the ballot before younger voters can get them in. (And their numbers were up again this year, two percent each.) See this old Joe Posnanski interview with Jeff Idelson, in which he makes it clear that the Hall is all about making this into a character issue rather than an on-field one. They don't want those guys in, regardless of what a younger, less reactionary generation might think. The BBWAA has its problems, but these are not unreasonable people, particularly the reformers. There is only so much they can do. They're putting a clock on us.
It is exciting to see Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Craig Biggio and John Smoltz in the Hall of Fame today. They are all deserving; the Hall is better for their presence. But four players getting in today shouldn't slight the issue here. People inside baseball itself have spoken on these "problems" through their bottom line: Most do not care. Fans, particularly younger ones, increasingly do not care. The people who appear to care the most seem to be the older writers and the Hall itself, in a stance that has more to do with themselves than the game they're ostensibly covering. Because the rationales for them being the ones who make this decision have eroded. Exclusive proximity? Gone. Emotionless impartiality? Gone. And when you separate the Hall from the game it is supposed to be honoring, you have a Hall that exists only for itself.
As someone who loves this game, and still, perhaps dumbly, believes in the theoretical power of a Hall of Fame, this is tragic. We can talk all we want about morals and beliefs and rumors and The Right Way. But when you make Baseball's Hall of Fame about something other than baseball, when you make it about you … that's how you kill the Hall of Fame. And I don't want it to die.